Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The man on the corner

One of the things that I really don't like about working downtown is the street people and the panhandlers. They don't bother me per se, it just makes me kind of sad to start each day seeing people who are so much worse off than I am, and to think - as I inevitably do - how hard life must be for them. I wonder if they are somebody's dad, somebody's grandfather, somebody's daughter. I wonder if things were easier once, if life was better in some distant past.

I have no patience for young people who beg on the street. If you haven't read it between the lines by now, I have definite bleeding-heart-liberal tendencies, and am about as big a sucker as they come. But I draw the line at sharing my hard-earned money with somebody my age or younger who could go out and get a job washing dishes or shovelling snow or doing something productive, rather than hanging around downtown all day. If you are capable enough to spend a couple of hours outside panhandling in the cold Ottawa winter, you are hardy enough to get a minimum wage job somewhere, in my humblest and slightly ranting opinion.

It's the older folks who tug my heart strings. There's one man I pass almost every day. He looks a little like Captain Highliner gone to seed. He is not agressive, he just leans against a door frame with a battered black watchcap open in his hands, barely even held out from his body. He is dishevelled but not particularly dirty. His grey hair is long with unruly curls, and you can't quite tell where the hair ends and the scraggly beard begins.

For whatever reason, today I wanted to give him something, so rather than the quick-without-eyecontact smile I usually send him on the days that I don't hurry past like he isn't there, I slowed my step and began digging through my pockets. Much to my surprise, as I approached he began to make small talk with me about the weather, saying how it is still a little on the nippy side, even though spring is finally here and the sun is warm.

It wasn't so much the words that caught me off guard as the voice that spoke them. I guess I was expecting a salty voice and gruff attitude, but he had neither. He had a voice as smooth and deep as polished mahogany, and he enunciated his words like a professor. When he spoke, he had a gentle kindness that was completely at odds with the resentment that I had previously attributed to him.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I'm still thinking about him, wondering who he is and how he came to be the sort of man who gets up before dawn to panhandle the morning commuter crowd. Where does he live? What motivates him? Who loves him? Was there a pivotal moment in his life that marked the difference between his road and mine?

There are worse things I could do with $2 than be reminded what a priviledged life I lead.